Category: Sports

Playing House by Amy Andrews

Playing House by Amy AndrewsPlaying House by Amy Andrews
Series: Sydney Smoke Rugby #5
Published by Entangled: Brazen on February 12th 2018
Pages: 250
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two-stars

Eleanor is content with her boring life—mostly. She’s even fine being the quirky sister in a bevy of beauties. So imagine her surprise when one of her brother’s Sydney Smoke mates hits on her at an engagement party. Her. The weird sister, who wears vintage dresses and prefers her books to parties.

Bodie is shocked the next morning to find the soft, sexy virgin who seduced him with corsets is his best friend’s little sister. If he could kick his own ass, he would. And two months later, she’s got an even bigger surprise for him. Now he needs to convince the corset-loving wallflower that he loves her uniqueness if they’ve got a chance at forever.

He always did love a challenge…

‘Playing House’ did kind of fall flat for me with the stereotypes that Amy Andrews played with here—the virgin and the supposed ‘accidental’ manwhore who used to be a committed boyfriend but was cheated on—but I’m writing this review with the understanding that this imprint is more to do with smexy times than anything else. Much of Bodie/Nell’s interactions were unsurprisingly, sex-based, so their time in between the sheets were prioritised over the harder and difficult issues that crop up in romance.

Andrews’s writing is superlative as always, so if you could adjust your expectations about this imprint, then Andrews definitely delivers, objectively speaking. Nell and Bodie did scorch the sheets via a deception Nell played because she just couldn’t wait any longer to lose her virginity.

Personally, I didn’t exactly buy into this pairing somehow—not when it seemed more about animal attraction and lust that apparently overrode every ounce of common sense and worse yet, when Nell simply delayed telling Bodie about the accidental pregnancy because they frustratingly did everything else and got on with sex except to deal with the actual issue at hand. In fact, I found myself skimming the sex scenes and that was when I knew I’d completely missed the point of the Brazen line.

I’m afraid that this book isn’t for me—too many bodily functions seemed to have gone into feeding frenzy along with a heroine whom I couldn’t sympathise with at all for her dodging and running away—at all, though I probably should have known better going into this particular imprint of Entangled’s.

two-stars

From Lukov with Love by Mariana Zapata

From Lukov with Love by Mariana ZapataFrom Lukov with Love by Mariana Zapata
Published by Mariana Zapata on February 1st 2018
Pages: 493
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three-stars

If someone were to ask Jasmine Santos to describe the last few years of her life with a single word, it would definitely be a four-letter one.

After seventeen years—and countless broken bones and broken promises—she knows her window to compete in figure skating is coming to a close.

But when the offer of a lifetime comes in from an arrogant idiot she’s spent the last decade dreaming about pushing in the way of a moving bus, Jasmine might have to reconsider everything.

Including Ivan Lukov.

I do have a love-hate relationship with the slow burn novel, over which Mariana Zapata seems to be the reining monarch. If the frequent complaint about novellas is the instant love/lust and the unrealistic view of a HEA that results because of it, the slow burn story tries to address this lack of believability by going in the opposite direction—to the chagrin of some readers, particularly when it doesn’t work out too well.

What the slow-burn does however, is allow the passing of (a lot of) time to do its magic…and for hidden sides of Zapata’s protagonists to emerge when it’s least expected. I did appreciate the multi-faceted character of Jasmine, though ultimately, I couldn’t find her entirely likeable. While I could empathise with her issues and cheer her burning ambitions, often she merely came off as self-absorbed and childishly juvenile, prone to outbursts of temper, vehemently disagreeing with everyone else for the bloody sake of saving her own pride. I did love Ivan, in contrast, for his ability to give it back as good as he got from Jasmine, for his loyalty and his unwavering support as she went through her mood swings and the quirky rescue animals he kept as a completely separate part of his life.

Still, ‘From Lukov with Love’ didn’t resonate with me that much, not because of the believability of it, but because of the pacing that crammed a romantic relationship in the last 30 pages of the book, while rest of it seemed to deal mostly with a developing friendship and a young woman’s own journey towards being better while getting some enlightenment about it in the process. I waded and skimmed through pages and pages of dialogue, cringing at weird descriptors such as ‘the redhead who had given birth to me’ just threw me off (what was wrong with simply using the word ‘mother’?!) and the copious repetitive blinking Ivan/Jasmine did, while wondering when the tension between them was finally going to break.

When it finally did, the switch was rushed and abrupt, without the sense of satisfaction I needed to feel because their friendship simply felt stretched past the point of elasticity. In fact, I thought the key moments of Ivan/Jasmine’s interactions could have made the story more streamlined and less cumbersome—not every scene or every recording of Jasmine’s inner monologues seemed necessary—especially when written with the deep, cutting emotional fervour that Zapata is capable of.

It isn’t the first time I’ve finished a Zapata book asking myself what the hell just happened, particularly when the HEA passes by in a blink. It’s akin to queuing hours for a ride at a carnival and only to have the thrill ride over in about 2 minutes and then I’m left to stumble out after being dazzled for a few moments, wishing the wait was more worth it.

three-stars

Virgin Territory by Lia Riley

Virgin Territory by Lia RileyVirgin Territory by Lia Riley
Series: Hellions Angels #3
Published by Avon Impulse on March 6th 2018
Pages: 131
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one-star

Practice Makes Perfect

Patrick “Patch” Donnelly has what it takes to be the best goalie in the NHL…if only he could learn to control his temper. When Coach orders him to get his head in the game with private yoga classes, Patch isn’t having it. There’s no way this tough Boston guy would be caught dead downward dog-ing his way to inner peace. But if he refuses, he risks his starting position and the dream he sacrificed everything for, including joining the priesthood.

Yoga instructor Margot Kowalski is over men. After yet another toxic relationship, she’s eager to forget love and focus on growing her business. Doing the Hellions head coach a favor by helping out a troubled player can't hurt, and it might give her career a high-profile boost. But free-spirited Margot is soon charming the pants off Patch. Literally. Her sassy combination of sweet and sexy proves irresistible to the goalie. Before Patch can give into temptation though, he’ll have to confess his biggest secret:

He’s a virgin.

But Patch is hiding more than sexual inexperience, and his dark past soon threatens to destroy his shot at true love.

I like Lia Riley’s writing—which strangely reminds me of the cocksure voices of authors like Kimberly Kincaid, Avery Flynn and a few others—and the self-assured tone that’s found throughout makes the reading process a breeze. And that was enough to request for an ARC of this book, though the premise of the story when I first read it, admittedly made me very wary of it, particularly when this thing called ‘virginity’ comes into question.

So this is all me, my own writerly and readerly hang-ups, that are being reflected in this review.

The imbalance of sexual experience, for want of a better way of putting it, isn’t exactly trope I like to read about; the role reversal here didn’t make much of a difference—the sexually-experienced woman and the virgin man, with the former going as far as to instruct the latter. And that makes me cringe, because reading romance novels has never been a tit-for-tat issue for me; I don’t purposefully go for books that deliberately try to turn the tables on supposed stereotypical gender roles simply because there have been too many manwhores and inexperienced women. While readers may crow about and love the role reversal here, my own reason deviates somewhat: I delve into romance to actually root for a couple that I think I can genuinely get behind and for a few hours of escapism from reality which good writing has the capability of doing, rather than for the purpose of gender shaming or the robust defence of one over the other.

Unfortunately, ‘Virgin Territory’ felt like that for me from the start—too much of it like a woman’s slamming rant against sexist men in order to reinforce what women should be allowed to do/believe in the 21st century. Like in ‘Head Coach’, there was a tad bit much of what sounded like meta-speak for women’s rights: why slut-shaming is wrong, why women should be free to have the sex they want, yada yada and it did come across as somewhat preachy at times…all through the mouth of Margot, whose repetitive, defensive insistence of it felt annoying after a while, particularly when it stemmed from a position of insecurity and loneliness.

There’s also the problem that seems inherent in ‘virgin’ romances, whether the virgin character is male or female—that a huge, huge deal is made out of it, or that it is either a huge stumbling block that makes people pause or that virginity is something pesky to be gotten rid of. Admittedly, that Patch’s religion had a part in this story, that he wanted sex to mean something and for once, I could actually appreciate how the church had been an anchor in his life, rather than the usual interpretation of toxic religion that much of romantic fiction uses as a crutch against love and sex. I felt for Patch, the difficult history he’s had, and the self-awareness he had of himself, which already put him far above many heroes I’ve read about.

Needless to say, for reasons that are clearly my own, ‘Virgin Territory’ was an excruciating read. I found that I couldn’t go on past the halfway mark, not because I don’t like Riley’s style, but because the subject matter put me off too much.

one-star

Brooklynaire by Sarina Bowen

Brooklynaire by Sarina BowenBrooklynaire by Sarina Bowen
Series: Brooklyn Bruisers #4
Published by Rennie Road Books on February 12th 2018
Pages: 452
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three-half-stars

You'd think a billion dollars, a professional hockey team and a six-bedroom mansion on the Promenade would satisfy a guy. You'd be wrong.

For seven years Rebecca has brightened my office with her wit and her smile. She manages both my hockey team and my sanity. I don't know when I started waking in the night, craving her. All I know is that one whiff of her perfume ruins my concentration. And her laugh makes me hard.

When Rebecca gets hurt, I step in to help. It's what friends do. But what friends don't do is rip off each others' clothes for a single, wild night together.

Now she's avoiding me. She says we're too different, and it can never happen again. So why can't we keep our hands off each other?

Writing this review was difficult, mostly because of the anticipation I had with Nate/Becca’s story—the build-up and the fandom surrounding this couple pretty much came to a feeding frenzy—which Sarina Bowen finally wrote. Most likely then, were my expectations over the top and too fanciful and honestly, probably something no author would want to write, which also meant that my own personal expectations had to be adjusted after I blew through the book.

‘Brooklynaire’ is in essence, a forbidden-ish boss/employee story, with the billionaire hero thrown into it, yet it’s also a very slow, meandering friends-to-lovers romance, after several wrong turns that involved a fair bit of bed-hopping and a pregnancy scare before the delirious HEA happens. Part of it is also a Nate and Becca origins story; the brief details given in their early years were what I loved the most as both protagonists started on their friendship, before the money and glitz came rolling in, back when the guys were just really smart geeks in jeans and hoodies working as a tech startup. Half of the first book took place in the same timeline as the previous book however, filling in the gaps of what we thought might have happened in ‘Pipe Dream’ and it was only in the second half that Bowen brings us onto uncharted ground with their relationship.

I wasn’t too sure what I was exactly expecting, but I did find myself hoping that Nate/Becca’s story had taken a different turn somehow: the amount of OW-drama proved a little too much for my liking, even though the focus remained Nate’s uphill climb to get Becca to see him as the man beneath the suit in a way that didn’t fully push up the dial on the angst. It was frankly, harder to get behind them especially when Nate’s past hammered back in just when their relationship was on the uptick—I thought we could have done without the last, frustrating bit that threw me for a loop.

Still, Bowen has a writing style that sucks you in and never lets go, and her heartfelt characters have quirks (which you like) and a sense of maturity (mostly) that make them generally likeable and more easily relatable than others that I’ve read about. Consequently, finishing any book of Sarina Bowen is no hardship—to this extent I’m in awe of Bowen’s ability to get a reader’s empathy for either one or even both of her protagonists. It’s definitely odd that I thought I would have liked ‘Brooklynaire’ better, though as happy as I am to see Nate/Becca finally getting the ending they should be getting, their story didn’t punch me as emotionally hard as I thought it would have.

three-half-stars

Fair Game by Amy Andrews

Fair Game by Amy AndrewsFair Game by Amy Andrews
Series: Women of W.A.R #3
Published by Escape Publishing on February 20th 2018
Pages: 150
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five-stars

How to mend a broken heart...

Darcy Clarke would do anything to play for the new Women’s Aussie Rules league, even put up with her ex, Tony, who just happens to be the coach of the Brisbane Banshees. Tony stomped out of their apartment – and all over heart – two years ago, but she’s moved on, and she deserves her jersey.

As his best friend’s girl, Darcy has always been out of Levi’s reach, even after Tony dropped her and moved out of the apartment they all shared. Now, two years on and still sharing the same apartment, she should be fair game. But Levi is no closer to getting Darcy to think of him as anything but a roommate and a friend.

But when Darcy injures herself in play, Levi’s qualifications as a sports massage therapist are put to good use. Suddenly, their relationship becomes very hands on, and Darcy sees a whole new side of her old friend. A pity he seems immune to her charms. When Tony makes it clear he wants back into her life, she has a decision to make: between the man she once loved and the man who never left her side.

I’m going to remember ‘Fair Game’ as one of Amy Andrews’s best. For not just the unusual portrayal of a hands-on, sporty, low-maintenance market gardener and the unusual man-bunned, sports therapist, yoga-loving man but also proving, in the world of alpha males and women who sometimes struggle to understand them, that non-stereotypical roles can not only function but function brilliantly.


Who would have thought that an understanding of anatomy would be so useful?

But the best of all? It doesn’t take a footy fan to understand the development of the relationship between Levi and Darcy; Andrews writes their friends-to-lovers journey with a sweet but raunchy and believable build-up, concentrating on characterisation instead, up to the point where you’re convinced that the clothes have to come off (and thankfully they finally do). Levi came across as one of the best top blokes – understanding, supportive and so thoughtful – I’ve had the privilege of reading about and while I didn’t exactly understand Darcy’s initial insistence that a relationship would detract from the many things that were going on in her life, I’m glad that this was resolved fairly easily and quickly with a conclusion that I thought could have benefitted from an epilogue.

Still, ‘Fair Game’ left me a happy camper and considering the reading slump I’ve been having so far, this just made my day.

five-stars

Down by Contact by Santino Hassell

Down by Contact by Santino HassellDown by Contact by Santino Hassell
Series: The Barons, #2
Published by Intermix on January 16th 2018
Pages: 124
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four-stars

Simeon Boudreaux, the New York Barons’ golden-armed quarterback, is blessed with irresistible New Orleans charm and a face to melt your mama’s heart. He’s universally adored by fans and the media. Coming out as gay in solidarity with his teammate hasn’t harmed his reputation in the least—except for some social media taunting from rival linebacker Adrián Bravo.

Though they were once teammates, Adrián views Simeon as a traitor and the number-one name on the New Jersey Predators’ shit list. When animosity between the two NFL players reaches a boiling point on the field, culminating in a dirty fist fight, they’re both benched for six games and sentenced to joint community service teaching sullen, Brooklyn teens how to play ball.

At first, they can barely stand to be in the same room, but running the camp forces them to shape up. With no choice but to work together, Simeon realizes Adrián is more than his alpha-jerk persona, and Adrián begins to question why he’s always had such strong feelings for the gorgeous QB…

The ultimate enemies-to-lovers showdown begins during a pre-season football game with cutting words and ends in an injury, fights that spread even to the fans and a stint doing community service for several weeks. I loved the explosive conflict right from the start—it had me laughing yet tingling with anticipation as I wondered how Santino Hassell was going to navigate the tricky waters of coming out, bisexuality and parental pressure, particularly as top level athletes.

But Hassell manages remarkably well. I didn’t think that Simeon and Adrian could get past their hot, heavy but difficult history, but Hassell’s slow revelation of Adrian’s sullen, vindictive nitpicking at Simeon’s sexuality is a perceptive one, as is his writing of Simeon as someone who isn’t the typical dumb jock/joker unable to see what Adrian is trying to do. And like the men they are, their behaviour is spot on: not terribly heavy on the emotions or the angst. There’s the typical deflection, roundabout admissions and the finality of the acceptance that I’ve come to expect, up to the last few pages when it’s simply breathtaking just to read the complete turnaround that Adrian makes.

There are subtle differences that distinguish Hassell’s writing from the rest of the (rather few M/M) sports romances I’ve read so far, but it’s a style I can easily get used to. It’s stylishly done, perfectly paced, with dialogue that’s unexpectedly edgy, harder and unpredictable—not to mention, the excellent way both Simeon and Adrian are set up that I’m always left guessing how both might react in the situation they find themselves in.

Even as a non-fan of American football, ‘Down By Contact’ is a fantastic read. Hassell has made it more about the protagonists than about the sport (I don’t thankfully, get lost in the details) and way before after Simeon and Adrian ride happily into their sunset, I’m already wondering how Hassell is going to top this.

four-stars

Relay by Layla Reyne

Relay by Layla ReyneRelay by Layla Reyne
Series: Changing Lanes #1
Published by Riptide Publishing on January 8th 2018
Pages: 237
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four-stars

Captain is not a title Alejandro “Alex” Cantu takes lightly. Elected by his teammates to helm the US Men’s Swim Team, he proudly accepts the role, despite juggling endless training, team administrative work, and helping out on the family farm. And despite his ex-lover, Dane Ellis—swimming’s biggest star—also making the Olympic Team.

Dane has been a pawn in his celebrity parents’ empire from crib to pool, flashing his camera-ready smile on demand and staying deeply in the closet. Only once did he drop the act—the summer he fell in love with Alex. Ten years later, Dane longs to cut his parents’ strings, drop his too-bright smile, and beg Alex for another chance.

Alex, though, isn’t ready to forgive and forget, and Dane is a distraction he doesn’t need on his team, until an injury forces Alex to accept Dane as his medley relay anchor. Working together, their passion reignites. When Dane’s parents threaten reprisal and Alex is accused of doping, the two must risk everything to prove Alex’s innocence, to love one another, and to win back their spots on the team, together.

The simmering intensity of testosterone-laden competitive athletes and that crazy energy that they bring to it are what I particularly love about sports romances. Never having read M/M for olympic swimmers, ‘Relay’ quite literally had my eyes popping at the blurb that was followed by furious clicking on Netgalley and earnest prayer that I’d be given an ARC.

From the way Layla Reyne amped it up straight from the start as hostile sparks flew between Alex and Dane, I sat back, licked my chops and knew immediately this was going to be a good one. There were so many things I liked about this: the pairing, the unique pressures that the modern sports celebrity faces, the multiethnic representation of the swim team, the petty politics that goes on behind the performance and practice and the ever-present, pounding anticipation of the upcoming meet that pours off the pages.

And just as I liked the context and the build-up to the Olympics, I was fond of Alex from the start—the overworked athlete struggling to make ends meet and while keeping his swim team in sync and in good spirits, while keeping his heart and head away from Dane Ellis. Alex and Dane as we learn, had a history and one that ended in a nasty way a decade ago, no thanks to Dane.

Consequently, I had a bit of a harder time with Dane, wishing that his own courage wasn’t just limited to pushing his limits in the water. But Reyne peels back the layers to reveal more than a spoilt boy with his hypocritical parents (though I do wonder why religious characters always tend to be the biggest hypocrites in romantic fiction) who had done nothing but control his life.

My only complaint is that some bits felt far-fetched, which made the ending somewhat anti-climatic as everything started and ended during the run up to the heart-pounding Olympics itself: Dane’s ultimate stepping in, the quick resolution, the unrealised but hopeful dream, the rushed HEA.

Or maybe I’m nitpicking about what left me a little dissatisfied, only because ‘Relay’ felt unfinished, like the fall of the curtain before the climax of a play. Still, ‘Relay’ is probably one of the most unusual M/M books I’ve come across and I’m already hopping impatiently for the next one to come.

four-stars